Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson’s 1975 Farthest Star is the first novel in the Cuckoo duology, which was a fixup of the 1973 novella Doomship (1973) and the 1974 serial The Org’s Egg.
Farthest Star is an example of the Big Dumb Object school of science fiction. This makes it cousin to such classics as Ringworld, Rendezvous with Rama , and Orbitsville, as well as to books like The Wanderer.
By the late 21st century, humans have made contact with a loose association of alien civilizations. These civilizations are linked, not by physical spacecraft, but by near-instantaneous tachyon communication. Tachyon beams carry information; they cannot transmit matter, but material objects can be scanned., That information can then be transmitted by the tachyon transporter, to be duplicated at a distant location1. This tech has allowed humans to join the association and travel, as copies, to other worlds.
What if the traveller dies? Run off another copy. Or another dozen copies. Just ask the ill-fated Ben Pertin.
20,000 light-years from Earth, the Lambda Object — vast, dark, unknown — is hurtling out of intergalactic space into the Milky Way. Those members of the association who are curious about such matters initially have no idea what to make of the object. Thanks to the alien T’Worlies’ habit of profligately flinging sub-light probes in all directions, it will be possible to investigate the puzzle by redirecting the nearest probe.
The redirected probe has been temporarily crewed to facilitate dropping a sub-probe onto the Lambda Object. The copies will not be retrieved. They are expected to do their best before being killed by the lethal amounts of radiation emitted by the drive.
Every being who sent a copy to the probe knew that their copy was doomed. Oddly enough, it turns out the copies are considerably less accepting of their dismal fate than were the originals. The social order on the probe begins to break down, which means that the fractured crew may not be able to send a further probe down to the Lambda Object.
Ben Charles Pertin, eager to prove that humans are worthy members of the galactic association, volunteers to send a copy to the probe. Ben James Pertin steps out of the probe’s transporter and into a nightmare. At least he won’t be stuck there long: if the radiation does not kill him, the other crew members definitely will.
The Org’s Egg
Dubbed “Cuckoo” by baffled humans, the Lambda Object is a study in contradictions. As massive as the sun, the great sphere is more than 300,000,000 kilometers wide, which gives it a density of about 0.01 micrograms per cubic meter. Despite its low density, Cuckoo has a solid surface and a breathable atmosphere. Even more inexplicably, Cuckoo’s surface is inhabited by all manner of life forms, some quite familiar. Long before humans had space flight, humans somehow got to Cuckoo.
Not content to simply map from orbit or to send robot probes to the surface, the association’s orbiting space station does what anyone in command of a cosmic Xerox would do: they sent copy after copy of Ben Pertin down to the surface, occasionally accompanied by equally unlucky explorers. The primary result is that the association gains an intimate knowledge of all the ways there are to die in the weird ecosystem on Cuckoo’s surface, although not as intimate a knowledge as the small army of Ben Pertins has gained.
Meanwhile, a boy named Fifteenth has no idea his distant cousins are studying his world from above. His gaze is fixed on the distant mountain Knife-in-the-Sky, where the great orgs soar. Fifteenth is determined to capture one of the dragonlike orgs for his own, to trade a boy’s name for a man’s name: Org Rider.
The journey brings Org Rider to the attention of the Watchers, self-styled rulers of this part of Cuckoo. Against his will, Org Rider is marked by the Watchers as one of their thralls. Escape seems impossible … or at least it would be if visitors were not even now wandering Cuckoo.
There is lots of gosh-wow in Farthest Star , not least of which is the revelation that Cuckoo is a gigantic intergalactic vessel. Unfortunately, like The Wanderer, and for that matter Pohl and Williamson’s Starchild Trilogy , the actual plot Pohl and Williamson manage to deliver does not live up to the awesome potential of the setting.
Perhaps the biggest SOD-slayer is the very same flaw discussed in this week’s Young People Review Old Science Fiction , which is that given the technology possessed by the T’Worlie (and thus by other cultures in the association), there seems to be no compelling reason to send living beings to almost certain doom. Why not pilot automated probes via tachyon communication? Apparently this is routine. The entire Doomship section is pointless.
Farthest Star is an odd mix of modern (well, Disco Era Modern) and … classic is better than archaic? Classic science fiction tropes. Perhaps the most classic trope is instantiated by Ben’s fiancée Zara. Like Ben, she exists in several versions, some of whom have never met Ben. While one copy does venture down to Cuckoo, her main role in the plot is to provide a focus for romantic obsession and a reason for death-defying rescues — which are facilitated by her tendency to fall for the nearest guy, even when she has only just become a widow. It’s very 1940, which may be why Zara, a professional journalist working the galactic beat, is regarded as just a girl .
I have remembered this novel for the [mumble] years since I first read it for two reasons.
1) In stark contrast to Algis Budrys’ grim Rogue Moon2,Ben Pertin’s endless deaths eventually become darkly comic. This is what happens when you decouple choice (sure, copy me) from consequences (I’m not going to die, just my copy). I’ve often wondered if Farthest Star in some small way helped inspire Greg Costikyan’s roleplaying game Paranoia.
2) Cuckoo the worldship could have been such wonderful stage for adventure. Like Ringworld, but reversed. A vast, weird, low gravity environment. Many species, many cultures, long history. There could have been so much story there! I know the fashion these days is to remake popular classics … but surely it’s books like this and The Wanderer , with interesting ideas poorly developed, that would be the most fertile soil?
Farthest Star is very much out of print.
- The book seems to be a bit inconsistent on this point. The small probe that goes into orbit around Cuckoo somehow manages to create an entire space station, even though it cannot possibly have an entire space station’s worth of matter on board.
The book that Farthest Star really reminded me of was Poul Anderson’s The Enemy Stars. The Enemy Stars also uses matter scanners + FTL communication + duplicators to take humans to distant worlds. But there was one crucial divergence.Anderson, at least, was aware of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which means that the scanning process can only be destructive. As well, the transmitter can only create single copies. The you that steps out of the transporter at the far end of the transmission is the only you. If you die, there are no backups.
Speaking of backups, data storage, at least of ordinary travellers, does not seem to be a thing in Farthest Star. Why not?